The Los Angeles Lakers blow-out loss to the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night was a painful reminder of how far the team has fallen and the distance they must travel before they are good again. The Spurs dominated every facet of the game, exposing the purple and gold’s lack of execution, preparation, and sadly, lack of effort and talent. Whatever was working earlier in the season is not working now, and only a fool keeps doing the same thing over and over without trying to think outside the box and make serious adjustments.
The Lakers have 28 losses, within striking distance of the Miami Heat (29) and the Brooklyn Nets (30) for most defeats in the league. Any discussion of making the playoffs is absurd, and things are so bad that the public is already debating, for the third year in a row, whether the team should tank to try to preserve their top three protected selection in this summer’s NBA Draft. Although that idea has its share of supporters, such talk is harmful, as losing begets losing and the Lakers can’t continue fostering a losing culture where the players don’t know how to win.
For all their draft choices and mid-level free agent signings, and with a new coaching staff, the team’s performance on the court has not changed all that much which may not bode well for Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak in the offseason. The team needs a new direction.
Last season, every 20 games or so, Byron Scott juggled the rotation to achieve better results. This season, the coaching staff decided on a rotation in the preseason, and except when injuries interfered, the rotation has remained unchanged. The starters include two younger players, Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, paired with three veterans in Luol Deng, Nick Young, and Timofey Mozgov. It is fair to say that with the exception of the occasional game here and there, the starters have never really clicked all season.
The Lakers have been a bit more successful with their second unit, which has consisted all season of Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson at guard, Brandon Ingram, and Larry Nance Jr. at forward, and Tarik Black at center. Nance has missed 12 consecutive games with a knee injury, but Thomas Robinson stepped in and has generally played well in his absence. This unit was the number one scoring bench for much of the season but has regressed.
In short, at the midway point of a season that started out with promise, the harsh reality of where the team really stands right now cannot be ignored. While most of the young members of the team have played regularly this season, no one is averaging 30 minutes a night, and there has been an equal emphasis on playing the veterans, presumably to garner the most wins possible, which was the same misguided notion Byron Scott had last year. It hasn’t worked this year like it didn’t work last season, when instead of Deng, Mozgov, Young, and Williams, the team had Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, Young, and Williams.
There is no point continuing on the same path, so it is time to change the focus of the season from playing everyone equal minutes to making it all about developing the young talent. At this stage, for the Lakers franchise, nothing else matters.
For one thing, Jordan Clarkson should return to the starting line-up. His career development has been flat since his impressive rookie year. His shooting percentage is the same this year as in his first season, and his three-point percentage is the same as last year. His assists and rebounds have declined. To Clarkson’s credit, his defense is better this season.
Overall, things are not likely to improve with Clarkson coming off the bench in a reserve role, and there is no reason why Nick Young can’t return to the second unit where he has been his entire career. The team still does not know if Clarkson and Russell can make an effective backcourt duo, so the wise thing to do, win or lose, is to use the rest of the season to find out.
Another change is that Brandon Ingram should join the starting lineup and Deng should play with the second unit. Ingram shows great promise but hasn’t come close to putting it all together. Getting him as much playing time as possible, alongside the young teammates he will grow with over time, is the smart thing to do at this point. Deng started the year poorly but to give him credit; he has improved. Still, he is up one game and down the next, and when he and Randle are teamed together at the four and the five positions in a small ball lineup, it is a disaster defensively. Despite the foolish long-term contract he was given last summer, Deng does not represent the future, and at this point in the season, Ingram should be the starter.
Taking advantage of a rare opportunity to play against the Spurs, Ivica Zubac scored eight points, grabbed four rebounds, made two steals, and had a block and an assist in 15 minutes. In contrast, starting center Timofey Mozgov had zero points, zero assists, zero steals, one block and four rebounds. The point is, the Lakers are going nowhere with Mozgov as the starter. There are some games where his size is needed against the bigger centers in the league, but that is only because the backup center Tarik Black and occasional center Thomas Robinson do not have the size to matchup against DeMarcus Cousins or Rudy Golbert. Zubac, however, does have the size and his upside potential dwarfs that of Black and Robinson, who are good backups but do not have the overall talent to be starters.
The Lakers came into the season with the preconceived notion that Zubac had to spend a year watching from the bench. That was a questionable assumption then, and right now it looks like sheer madness. Zubac does not look any different from most other rookies in terms of his preparedness for the NBA, and he has an intriguing skill set that with nurturing and experience could be very impressive. If Zubac does not get 18-20 minutes of playing time each game for the rest of this lost season, someone should seriously question if the Lakers know what they are doing.
It is radical, and it is bold, but the Lakers starting lineup for the rest of the season should feature Russell and Clarkson at guard, Ingram and Randle at forward, and Zubac at center. That is the future of the franchise, and it will remain so unless and until the Lakers can attract a big name free agent or trade for a star player, neither of which seems likely in the foreseeable future. There is no reason to delay giving these five young players the opportunity to start now to learn to play together.
Right now, the team is not winning or showing any consistent improvement, so there is no reason to waste another minute getting the maximum benefit out of this season. The second unit can be comprised of Young, Williams, Deng, Mozgov, and Nance. If the team wants to go small, then Black can and should be inserted. The new starters should all play 30-35 minutes a night regardless of whether the team is winning, except for Zubac who should start the first and third quarters and see the balance of his playing time depend on how he is doing.
It is time for the Lakers to admit that the current rotation should be scrapped. It will not pay dividends this year nor does it further the prime directive which should be planning for a brighter future, Deng and Mozgov should not play just because the front office made a mistake and gave them all that money. Williams and Young are career second unit players who should remain there and not be featured.
After wasting last year on honoring Kobe Bryant, the team needs to get definitive answers about the young players who seem to be the key to a better tomorrow. The only way to do that, and to figure out what they really have in the young core, is to make them – all of them – the number one priority the rest of the season. Hopefully, common sense will prevail soon.